Interrogating the Fantasy of Asian Femininity: Brace Scholar Junah Jang ’20 on the role of Asian Women in Western Theater Productions

“Miss Saigon,” a long-standing musical performance on Broadway, exemplifies the harmful stereotype of sensual and dangerous Asian women, according to Brace Scholar Junah Jang ’20. Jang questioned the validity of the characters’ image and the broader representation of the Asian women in media in her Brace Fellowship Presentation, “The ‘Miss’ in ‘Miss Saigon’: Deconstructing a Fantasy of Asian Femininity” on Monday, February 9 in the Abbot School Room.

Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly”, Miss Saigon begins in 1975 and depicts the tragic relationship between Chris, an American soldier during the Vietnam War, and Kim, a Vietnamese bar-girl and prostitute, who fall in love and conceive a mixed-race child, but are separated when the Southern Vietnamese capital, Saigon, falls.

Jang argued that Kim’s portrayal in “Miss Saigon” embodied the hypersexualization of the archetype centered on a young, vulnerable woman searching for survival in exchange for sexual favors, thus fulfilling a traditional Western perception of foreign women, particularly Asian women. According to Jang, such representations emphasize the physical and metaphorical dominance of American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

“The Vietnamese bodies were depicted as sort of both sensual and dangerous. Basically, the intimate relationship between sex and danger was a big part of the American understanding of Vietnamese women. This is because of how the Vietnam war constructed a certain relationship between local Vietnamese women and American soldiers, which served as a parallel for the larger relationship between what the West interpreted as feminine and masculine. Even in the show, the prostitutes are outwardly seductive and attempt to win the hearts of soldiers who they hope will take them to America,” said Jang.

To understand why the erroneous mainstream perception of Asian women hides the multifaceted nuances of the Asian woman’s character and experience, Jang believes that the audience should understand the ornamentalist theory. The hypothesis is that Western productions objectify Asian femininity and hamper the ability of the Asian woman to realize an authentic representation of themself. According to Jang, such a new way of thinking allows one to understand that such misrepresentations are not reflective of real Asian women.

“So ornamentalism asks us to let go of our assumption that all things that resemble people have agency. For instance, the fact that you’re objectifying her assumes that the thing being objectified was a person, to begin with. But in many Western narratives and Euro-American culture, Asian femininity never really had that grasp on personhood, and rather than stories and art and literature about Asian women have always lived up to the objects around them, reinforcing this yellow woman myth.”

Jang continued, “Indeed, they’re not the focal point of the images, and instead, they are decorative and ornamental and part of the decorations. I think this really has a lot of potential, because Chang is moving away from critiquing fetishization and commodification, and thus the traditional power critiques are disappearing. She’s looking at these objects such as traditional clothing and fictional characters from stories, and not talking about real Asian women and instead of trying to figure out what happens at the end of all of those processes.”

Jang also discussed how her research affected her feelings towards Kim, the titular character of “Miss Saigon”. She detailed how, as a young actress, she idealized Kim and dreamed of performing her role on the stage. She then, however, deconstructed the reasoning behind her early adulation and provided insight into her current position in relation to the character’s identity.

“Kim, as a character, isn’t inauthentic because she’s not a perversion of a real Vietnamese woman. She’s what I like to term a host for a ghost, or a vessel for an inorganic entity that always has and will always exist in relationship to its white lover. So in some ways, this way of thinking frees me, because I no longer feel tied to the character of Kim, because I no longer see her as a representation of me. So I don’t feel like I have as much of a stake in her story,” said Jang.

John Bird, Instructor of English, was Jang’s faculty advisor for the project. In an email to The Phillipian, Bird described the role he played in the research process and his admiration for how Jang approached her topic.

“Junah asked me to be her faculty advisor because I was her English teacher last year. My role was mostly brain-storming early on as Junah figured out the parameters of her project, and then reading drafts and giving feedback over the summer. What I always found most compelling about Junah’s project was (and is) the personal stake that she has in the play and its production history. Her approach is conceptually rich and personally engaging,” wrote Bird.

Dori Rosenstrauch ’23, one of Jang’s castmates in the upcoming production of Les Misérables, attended the event. Rosentrauch recounted how she gained new insight regarding minority representation in Broadway Productions, and why she finds it important to attend presentations of this sort.

“The presentation showed representation on Broadway in a new light that I hadn’t seen before. She brought up a lot of statistics about the representation of Asian women and other Asian actors on the Broadway stage, which I had never thought about, unfortunately. And she also showed me incredible new perspectives and also introduced me to “Miss Saigon,” which I had never heard of before,” said Rosenstrauch.

She continued, “Whenever I come to these events, I always just learn so much. It reminds me that my identity as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual woman gives me a lot of privilege in the world, and every presentation that I go to sheds light on a different aspect of my privilege that I need to be aware of. I think that’s really important”.